The Basis of Legitimacy in Modern Democracies
As many of you know, the quadrennial election for the presidency of the USA is on the 6th of November this year. The cynics may rightly point out that the results of this election are largely symbolic, given that both the republican as well as the democratic candidates are beholden to corporations and the super-rich. It is also hard to dispute that both are empty suits who make good props for staged photo-ops while they are not acting on the behalf of the interests who funded their electoral campaigns. But this post is not about whether Obama and Romney are the handmaidens of plutocrats. It is about something else which the conduct of these elections could alter forever. Let me explain..
A disputed election resulting in a Romney-Ryan “win” would fatally undermine any belief in the legitimacy of the electoral process and the “system”.
Now some of you might say that the USA has a long and glorious history of electoral fraud and voter suppression- and that is true. Accounts of outright fraud, ballot stuffing, voter intimidation and suppression have been documented since the dawn of elections (including presidential elections) in the USA. However there are reasons why we cannot use the past as a guide to our future. Here is why-
1. The role, involvement and public expectations from elected officials have changed a lot over the years, especially the last 60-70 years. Electoral scandals from the beginning of the republic to the early 1900s had little effect on the real world as the government was mainly concerned with doing things like fighting a few foreign wars, invading brown/yellow countries and finishing the genocide of native americans. Elections mainly decided who got to steal public money and distribute it to their friends.
Contrast that situation to today when the results of elections determine things like healthcare premiums, laws on taxation, unemployment benefits, educational choices, upkeep of infrastructure, social security checks and a host of other things that have a direct and very significant impact on the average person. Many more people stand to gain or lose based on the results of elections than was the case 200, 150 or even 50 years ago.
2. The proliferation of media, especially the non-controlled type, has a huge impact on how people perceive the world around them. For most of the history of the USA as a republic, the speed and bandwidth of communication was very low and tightly controlled. You had to be someone ‘big’ to control the publication of book and newspapers or radio and TV broadcasts. The vast majority of americans had a very narrow choice of sources of information and channels for public discourse right into the 1980s. The web revolution of the late 1990s has upended that though the older generations are still overtly influenced by traditional media.
It was easy to suppress, minimize or spin away scandals in an era where average people had access to two newspapers, three magazines, four radio stations and three TV channels. It is no longer feasible to suppress damaging information or remove it from the circulation and efforts to do that have the opposite effect on that story. Moreover storing such information and sharing it is far easier than in the past as is the speed of its dispersal. Today it is very easy to find documents and audio or video clips that can permanently damage the image of any politician.
3. The demographic profile of the USA has changed such that the older generation is far whiter than the younger generations who increasingly make up the demographic in and under the working age-group. It does not take a genius to figure out that the attitudes, needs (real or imagined) and perceptions of these self-defined groups are at odds with each other. Old and rapidly decaying whites want to maintain a system that keeps them in “power” but still receive all the goodies from the work of people who don’t look like them. Given that we don’t in the age of slavery anymore, that might be impossible to achieve.
Non-whites in the USA have never seen whites as honest and altruistic human beings- to put it mildly. While they may have kept their opinions to themselves in the past, the leverage that whites used to have is now either gone or on its last arthritic legs. However as the republican parties attempts to suppress non-white voting show, they still believe that they can get away with it and live happily ever after. Then again, it is hard to treat self-delusion.
We also cannot forget the effects of Bush-Vs-Gore in the 2000 election.
Many conservatives think that they can get away with bullshit and scams because of the results of that election. However things have changed during those 12 years. Firstly, the USA is no longer an optimistic country with a booming economy and relatively widespread prosperity as was the case in 1999-2000. At that time, people thought that an uncharismatic guy who seemed very distant (Gore) was not much better of a choice than a Texass blowhard who looked personable (Bush). People did not want to rock the otherwise comfortable boat of the system because they thought the choice was between two otherwise unremarkable people.
While that did appear to be initially true, we saw a rather different side of Bush and his puppet masters after September 2001. Between the bizarro invasion of Iraq, the fueling of the real-estate bubble, enhanced outsourcing of jobs to China, the aftermath of Katrina, the inability to find ‘that’ guy in Afghanistan. Consequently far fewer people now believe that both parties or candidates are “equally bad”. It did not help that the Democratic challenger in the 2004 election, John Kerry, was a disaster and his VP ticket was an obvious conman. In an odd way, Mitt Romney is the republican version of John Kerry.
It is also important to realize that the spread of the internet and social media since 2000 makes any significant suggestion of electoral fraud hard to remove from the public consciousness of people- especially the younger and increasingly less whiter generation. To put it another way, a potential Romney-Ryan presidency is illegitimate even before the votes have been tallied. Now there are countries that have ‘pretend’ elections- like Egypt under Hosni Mubarak until a year ago or Mexico until the mid-1990s. But the results of these elections were widely understood to be scams and the population sees such leaders and the system as illegitimate. We all know how things work, or don’t work, in those countries. We also know how unstable/insecure those places are.
The real question is- Do you want to live in a system where the leaders and the system have no popular legitimacy and it is every man/ woman for himself/herself trying to scam and screw over everyone else?
What do you think? Comments?